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All Animals Must Be Safe and Sound During Disasters

A new book based on research at seven recent disasters is a must read.

Key points

  • A new book examines pets and other animals deserted during natural disasters.
  • Available technologies could be used to build pet and animal databases.
  • Free spaying and neutering should be a key disaster preparedness outreach program in disaster-prone communities.
Samuel Maciel/Shutterstock
Source: Samuel Maciel/Shutterstock

I recently read a riveting and most important book by Drs. Sarah DeYoung and Ashley Farmer titled All Creatures Safe and Sound: The Social Landscape of Pets in Disasters, in which the authors offer, "a comprehensive study of what goes wrong in our disaster response that shows how people can better manage pets in emergencies—from the household level to the large-scale, national level," and conducted on-the-ground research at seven recent disasters in the United States.1,2 I learned a lot from reading this landmark work and am pleased that Sarah and Ashley could take the time to answer a few questions about their timely and practical guide about how to best deal with animals who are victims of an increasing number of natural disasters. Here's what they had to say:

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write All Creatures Safe and Sound?

Sarah DeYoung and Ashley Farmer: We wrote this book because, despite the passage of the 2006 PETS Act, pets are still left behind in disasters and people still engage in evacuation refusal if they cannot easily bring their pets with them. During Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey, there were national news stories about dogs stranded in flood waters and we felt that it was critical to identify the key social and behavioral factors that led to these scenarios, while also recognizing the complexities that affect these decisions.

Temple University Press, with permission.
Source: Temple University Press, with permission.

MB: How does your book relate to your backgrounds and general areas of interest?

SD and AF: Dr. DeYoung was trained in community psychology. In this field, scholars learn that community well-being is linked with access to critical resources. When human communities cannot access resources to thrive in their daily lives, this spills over into the “pet world.” An example of this is that if people cannot easily access a hurricane shelter, their pet will also “hunker down” through the storm and this puts the entire family (pets included) at risk. Dr. Farmer was trained in Criminal Justice and this field examines the ways in which people and policies intersect that may lead to harmful outcomes. For example, we found in our fieldwork that breed-specific bans (Pitbull dogs in Miami-Dade) made it more difficult for people to access public hurricane shelters because people were more fearful of punishment than they were of seeking shelter with their animals.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

SD and AF: Our intended audience includes academics, scholars of disaster studies, scholars in sociology, emergency managers, and animal welfare advocates. People who have companion animals and who have an interest in disasters and evacuation may also be interested in this book, as we provide a wide range of examples and issues faced by pet owners and those who manage animals during disasters.

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

SD and AF: One key point is that there is usually a complex reason or story for why some people leave pets behind in disasters. Sometimes people think that they will be able to return to the community immediately or in a short period of time. Sometimes people are at work when the disaster occurs and then they cannot get back home to retrieve their pets.

Another key point is that there are available expertise and technologies that are not being streamlined and incorporated in disaster animal response. For example, it is extremely cumbersome and exhausting for evacuees to have to visit multiple physical and virtual sites to sift through lost and found posts. Having a central database for pet tracking in each event would improve this problem and reduce stress for evacuees. This would also increase the chances for pet reunification after disasters.

In addition to that, the expertise needed differs depending on the animals. People tend to think primarily about dogs and cats when it comes to pet ownership, but farm animals need special considerations in evacuations to account for difficulties in transporting and evacuating larger animals. For example, rescuing horses in flood waters requires a great deal of technical skill.

Another critical point is that pets are often surrendered after disasters because of a lack of affordable rented housing for disaster evacuees. Long-term housing for people with pets needs to be considered in recovery planning.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

SD and AF: Our book includes a discussion of the ways in which social media impacts animal rescue during and after disasters. We take the approach that social media is not inherently good or bad, but rather that groups and individuals can use it as a tool to leverage resources to a specific disaster or need. However, social media can also be a source of misinformation and this can make work challenging for emergency management, volunteer organizations, and animal rescue organizations.

MB: What are some of your current projects?

SD and AF: We recently published a paper on the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic impacts animal services in the United States, including veterinary clinics and other organizations. While “pandemic adoptions” served as a coping mechanism for many households, the financial strain of the pandemic also caused new concerns for people with companion animals. People indicated that they used their stimulus checks for vet bills or that they had a difficult time finding boarding for animals during hospitalization for COVID-19. Another project in progress is examining how emergency managers’ political beliefs influence pandemic response and planning.

MB: Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

SD and AF: Free spaying and neutering should be a key disaster preparedness outreach program in disaster-prone communities. Mobile clinics should come to communities and offer these services instead of expecting residents to be able to drive to spay and neuter clinics. Many residents are working multiple jobs, have limited transportation, or do not have adequate information about the importance of spay and neuter.

Shelter overcrowding and general community pet overpopulation increases chances that pets will be killed or injured in a disaster. Nearly 900,000 animals are euthanized every year due to pet overpopulation. Stray animals without homes during and after disasters are at risk of dying due to starvation, flooding, or fire injury. Many evacuees will have to surrender animals when their homes are destroyed, and this adds to the overall problem of shelter overcrowding. The death toll from COVID-19 is also adding to the problem of new animal surrenders because pets lose their caretakers.

References

In conversation with Sarah DeYoung and Ashley Farmer.

Notes

1) Sarah E. DeYoung is an Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware as a Core Faculty member for the Disaster Research Center and the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. Ashley K. Farmer is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State University.

2) Part of the book's description reads: All Creatures Safe and Sound is a comprehensive study of what goes wrong in our disaster response that shows how people can better manage pets in emergencies—from the household level to the large-scale, national level. Authors Sarah DeYoung and Ashley Farmer offer practical disaster preparedness tips while they address the social complexities that affect disaster management and animal rescue. They track the developments in the management of pets since Hurricane Katrina, including an analysis of the 2006 PETS Act, which dictates that animals should be included in hazard and disaster planning. Other chapters focus on policies in place for sheltering and evacuation, coalitions for animal welfare and the prevention of animal cruelty, organizational coordination, decision-making, preparedness, the role of social media in animal rescue and response, and how privilege and power shape disaster experiences and outcomes. Using data they collected from seven major recent American disasters, ranging from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Florence to the Camp, Tubbs, and Carr Fires in California and the Hawaii Lava Flow, the authors provide insights about the successes and failures of animal care. All Creatures Safe and Sound also outlines what still needs to change to best prepare for the safety and welfare of pets, livestock, and other companion animals in times of crisis.

Bekoff, Marc. Underdogs: Treating Needy Pets in Disadvantaged Communities. (An important new book looks at dogs' and cats' lives in low-income settings.)

_____. Puppy Mills, Pandemics, Disaster Preparedness, and Decency. '

DeYoung, Sarah and Ashley K. Farmer. Exploratory study: the COVID-19 pandemic and community-based animal organisations and households in the USA. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, July 2021.

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